2022-12-09 | Technology

The Virtue of Optimism

Why So Doomy?

As a techno-optimist myself, I understand where doomerism is coming from. Civilization-ending wars and disasters are still very much in the cards today, and collectively human behavior shows at best a fluctuating will to live. So far we have detected no hint of alien activity out among the stars, or found any of the remnants we would expect a galaxy-spanning civilization to leave behind in our own neighborhood - leading us ever closer to the conclusion that long-lived interstellar civilizations are either unattainable or that we're the first intelligent life form to arise within billions of light years.

So far we don't seem to show any large scale willingness to spread out to other worlds or to even consider the developments necessary for a sustainable long term future. Expected advances have not materialized, especially in medicine and physics. We're hostile to ideas like radical life extension, improving overall quality of life globally, getting rid of systemic injustices and suffering, using technology and foresight to dig ourselves out of environmental disasters.

Finally, instead of steadily gaining public support for science and technology, we seem to have left even more people behind whom we may not be getting back for generations, if ever. It is fully possible that humanity may split into several completely incompatible factions, and that may be the optimistic perspective! The growing fissures dividing us are very visible even on a technology-centered medium like HN.

Outliers notwithstanding, as a civilization the last two decades feel like we have given up on radical improvements. However, I believe outliers could still fulfill some of the promises of optimistic futurism, even though it may take longer and we may not get to a high enough level in time to master the challenges ahead. It's still worth trying, and it's still worth building momentum towards a better public acceptance.


Staying optimistic in the face of huge dangers threatening our civilization is important for a number of reasons.

First, it allows us to focus our energy on developing solutions to the problems we face. When we remain positive, we are more likely to look for ways to make a difference rather than dwelling on the magnitude of the challenge. By contrast, pessimism is a paralyzing and stagnating force.

Second, remaining optimistic helps us stay hopeful in a way that actually influences the outcome of our actions, by avoiding both intentional and subconscious self-limiting behavior. However, we should not passively resign ourselves to the idea that there are people out there who are working hard to address the issues we face, and that progress is being made. Instead, these goals must be felt and pursued by a significant number of people if we want our civilization to move forward.

Third, staying optimistic allows us to enjoy the small moments in life. Even in the face of huge dangers, we can still appreciate the beauty of life or the company of friends and family. This helps immensely to sustain mental and physical health, enabling us to remain focused on the tasks at hand and to evaluate goals and outcomes in relation to our personal values.

Finally, well-informed optimism can give us the courage to take action. Learned helplessness is a gigantic problem. We can be more confident that our efforts will likely make a difference if we don't give in to resignation and low expectations. This is difference between despair and hope: one is a self-destructive resignation to the status quo, whereas the other is a recognition that material conditions can and should improve. Optimism and critical thinking make a killer combination and are in my opinion a driving force behind necessary changes.